Hawke-Keating era saw Labor begin to lose its way

February 15, 2002

By Dennis Glover

15 February 2012

EARLIER this week, one of Labor’s most eminent historians criticised the ALP for failing to mention prime ministers Fisher, Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam and Rudd in a newsletter sent out to Labor supporters.

The ALP has actually put significant effort into selling its history in recent years, with a comprehensive website and a new semi-official history, but these omissions are not without relevance to current events, and I’m not just talking about the exclusion of Kevin.

For too many in the ALP these days, it seems the party’s past only really began with ominous irony about 1984. I’ll dispense with the obvious Orwell quote, but needless to say, the way a party controls its past tells you a lot about how it sees its present and its future.

Those early years of the Hawke government marked the end of Labor as the party of class struggle and its reinvention as the party of market-based economic modernisation. Even before the era had ended, the characters and their policy achievements had been raised to semi-mythical status, and since then Labor has tried hard to recapture that sense of purpose and mission.

In times past, Labor speechwriters would instinctively draw comparisons between their government’s new reforms and the great nation-building achievements of the Chifley years; metaphors such as “the fibre-optic Snowy” come to mind.

Today, though, they’re more likely to laud a new reform by calling it “our floating of the dollar”. To an increasingly historically amnesiac party, the Hawke-Keating era has become the measure of all things.

This is where the problem lies, because while the party’s drier economists may look back misty-eyed to the opening up of the Australian economy, Labor’s strongest supporters hated it.

I remember the debates vividly: the deregulation, the privatisation, the competition policy all had to be introduced over the party members’ dead bodies.

The romantic and radical economic legacy of past Labor leaders Scullin and Chifley taking on the money power, for instance, only got in the way. If, as many believe, Labor’s corpse now lies on the slab awaiting dissection, it was in the 1980s, when the party’s leadership began to diverge so radically from its supporters over fundamental economic and social beliefs, that the sickness first set in. Along with its history Labor discarded its lifeblood.

The economic reforms of the Hawke and Keating era may have succeeded in increasing the living standards of Labor’s base, but they robbed the party of much of its romantic message and populist appeal. People can be moved to fight for a better world when it’s presented to them in the biblical terminology of a light on the hill, but not when it’s presented in the actuarial terminology of cost-benefit analysis. And today, when Labor leaders endlessly repeat words such as “productivity”, “efficiency” and “reform”, all the party’s supporters hear are phrases such as “longer hours”, “less pay” and “potential job losses”. Continuing economic reform will obviously always be necessary, but it can’t assume the status of the party’s religion.

This has been a hard habit for Australian Labor to kick. In the US, politics is now fought on much more economically populist terms. Just listen to President Barack Obama’s most recent State of the Union Address. And in Britain, starting with the “Blue Labour” debate, Labour is arguing over the meaning of its past and how it can draw upon the many strands of its history — romantic, Christian-socialist, social-liberal and Fabian, not just Blairism — to regain its popular appeal.

It seems, though, the message is now getting through here as well. In the past week, the Gillard government has shifted its rhetoric back to traditional Labor themes of economics, employment and equality of sacrifice. This change may be the result of new focus-group testing, but it won’t be sustained beyond more than just a few Newspolls unless it runs deep.

From the reports emanating from Canberra, it appears that some of Labor’s younger advisers have only the shallowest understanding of their party’s history and the inspiration that can be drawn from it.

They could do worse than get out their history books to rediscover how their party confronted the issues of recession and economic development before 1984. What they won’t find is one great tirade against sensible economics, or even against the market itself, but a far richer story in which hard-headed economic management and visionary reform were indivisible from their moral context, and how, even in economic crises, caution was leavened with boldness and vision.

As Wayne Swan has been outlining since the Lehman Brothers collapse, when he vowed never to repeat the economic timidity of the Scullin administration during the Great Depression, Labor has to rule for people, not just economists.

The Treasurer’s preparedness to invoke John Maynard Keynes, whose emphasis on full employment informed the Curtin and Chifley governments’ nation-building policies, has been one of the gutsiest and most recognisably “Labor” stands of the Rudd-Gillard years.

And when you hear Swan take on the banks and other vested interests, and Julia Gillard talk up Australian manufacturing to save workers’ jobs, you hear a recognisably “Labor” economic voice. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that of all the Labor ministers of the past 4 1/2 years, it’s the Labor-history-conscious Swan who has the most policy runs on the board.

Perhaps it’s also no coincidence that Labor is inching up in the polls just as it’s realising that repeating the word “productivity” isn’t enough to win back support.